Child support. What is it? How is it determined? What happens if I can’t pay my share?
More than any other financial issue, child support creates angst and confusion. A few tips can help couples understand child support and their responsibilities–whether they pay or receive.
Why child support?
The purpose of child support is to ensure that children enjoy as close to the standard of living as they would have had if their family had remained in tact. Because the goal is to benefit the child/ren to the same extent they would have benefited from parents remaining married, all income is considered–base pay, overtime, bonuses, disability, etc.
How is child support determined?
Child support provides for three kinds of expenses:
- Transferred expenses—expenses that move with the child, such as cost of food or transportation.
- Duplicated expenses–expenses a parent must pay whether the child is present or not, such as housing and utilities.
- Controlled expenses–expenses include those that generally the parent with primary physical care pays but which the other parent does not, such as a winter coat or school expenses.
To determine the actual amount of support, first the parents incomes are combined. Then, a table is used to determine the percentage of parental income that would normally be directed toward supporting the child or children to provide the three kinds of expenses. This creates the basic child support amount.
Amounts are then added for child care and for payment of health insurance premiums for the child/ren.
This percentage is then divided between the parents in proportion to their individual income.
Parents can receive credits against the amounts they must pay for a variety of reasons, such as:
- a child support obligation from a prior marriage
- a child support obligation for a child born after the children considered in the order
- exercise of regular parenting time
- in-kind payments such as providing housing or paying utilities
- maintenance paid to a prior spouse
Once all the factors are considered, the Court determines the amount one parent should pay to the other. Much effort went into creating Guidelines which would offer predictability and consistent treatment of families in similar economic situations. So, courts are urged to take the Guidelines seriously. However, courts can deviate when they are able to detail specific reasons that the application of the Guidelines would cause hardship.
What if I can’t pay?
Because the courts have the ability to deviate from the Guidelines, presenting all circumstances at the time the Court is considering the award for child support is critical. Fully explain your situation and obligations to let the Court make the best determination for your unique situation.
Once an award is set, it is difficult to change. Child support can be changed only for a “substantial and continuing change in circumstances.” Income declining by more than 20%, another child to support, or a substantial increase in transportation costs to get to work might all be considered.
The best option for making a child support work in difficult situations might be through mediation. If you can work out with the other parent ways to ensure the children’s needs are met while lowering actual money payments, the mediator can present these to the Court for consideration. For example, offering housing, making needed repairs, or taking on more of the controlled expenses might help.
If this doesn’t work, an attorney can ask for a hearing to reconsider child support if the award is more than 12 months old. The attorney would then ask the Court to consider whether the changes in your life since the award merit changing the amount.
However, the Court remains very aware that children must have shelter, must eat, and must go to school. If the parent paying child support fails to meet their obligation, the burden on the other parent becomes disproportionate or the child goes without needed items. Therefore, courts expect you to make every effort to support your children–even when you must cut in other areas to do so.
These issues are confusing. If you need better understanding, please contact The Resolution Center. We’d be happy to answer questions and help you find an arrangement that protects your children while working for both parents.